Occupy Melbourne

An edited version of this piece appeared in The Age

Walking home late last night, the park’s canopy broke and the city came into relief: dark giants wearing neon headbands. My God, it was beautiful. An unabashed declaration of civilisation, not at war with the stars, but in a defiantly awkward choir with them.

Melbourne’s CBD was a messy class-photo of love and squalor; of architecture and short-cuts to architecture; of prosperity and design and commerce. A bold concentration of our triumphs and our failures, as cities are.

If you’re Occupying Melbourne at the moment, rather than just living in it, you might see it differently. As some vulgar and stupefying thing, perhaps. A citadel of capitalism, a triumph of cupidity, a cardboard edifice buckling under the collective breath of The People.

“Opening a dialogue in our public spaces for Real Democracy. It’s time Australians reclaimed our collective voice!” So says the Occupy Melbourne website, but it’s unclear from what or whom the public space is being reclaimed, and judging by the protestors’ dreams of revolution, it seems that democracy is no more of a concern than reality is.

For so many of Melbourne’s protestors, dread capitalism had become spectral and monolithic, but there is no consistently “capitalist” experience. Capitalism is, by its very nature, dynamic. Sometimes destructively. But Occupy Melbourne has done nothing to distinguish the Australian experience from the United States’, instead making a baneful conflation based upon myth and simplicity. It’s an ignorant and offensive comparison, dismissing our strong institutions, 5.1% unemployment rate, steady growth, low GDP/debt ratio, a culture far more egalitarian than our American brothers, a political response to the GFC which was applauded by the IMF, if not the voters and, importantly, our lauded financial regulation.

Here in Australia we had far less of Alan Greenspan’s almost religious optimism in the rationality of the banking sector, and much more of Adam Smith’s suspicion of its ruinous volatility. We’d do well to note this and, wary of growing prideful and complacent, give thanks to a system reasonably untouched by the darker practices of American capitalism.

Domestically, Occupy Melbourne has been a hilarious communications disaster. For something which had sprung powerfully from Wall Street, interest groups here have attached themselves parasitically to the body. At Occupy Fridays held in City Square, you can watch seminars on feminism, Palestine, Latin American politics, cyber security, and “critical theory”. It’s a preposterous, self-important mess which has diluted—if not destroyed—the message completely. A friend of mine went further, denying there ever was a message: “This is just the parasites. There is no host.”

Amongst claims of “real democracy” and fostering a “collective voice,” there appears to be scant interest about the country in which they protest. When discussions of Chavez’s Venezuelan utopia gets higher billing than Australian economics, you realise that you’re through the looking glass. And if you think the best and most inclusive way of winning over regular folks is lecturing them with the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, then there’s a good chance syphilis has destroyed your frontal lobe and I would quit practicing free love immediately. If you don’t know what the Frankfurt School of Theory is, then all the better for you, but it’s no surprise that our zealous would-be revolutionaries are in its thrall.

In fact, your participation in Occupy Melbourne may well rest on how diligently you studied Marcuse or Deleuze or any of the other “critical theorists” and “deconstructionists” in university, who do such a good job of transforming their readers into smug little vandals for whom critical thinking means an untiring suspicion of everything. That which is consistent is to be abhorred. To know culture is to loathe it. This reflexive pessimism must be exhausting, and means the Christmas presents are forever zealously dismantled and left broken on the floor, dismissed as artefacts of Empire.

The truth is, capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. As the New Yorker’s John Cassidy has written: “In China between 1981 and 2005, according to a study by researchers at the World Bank, the poverty rate fell from 84 percent to 16. By the end of the period, more than 600 million Chinese had been lifted out of poverty,” a result of China opening up its markets.

As Cassidy notes, with the development of the Chinese economy—as with the industrialisation of Britain’s and the United States’ beforehand—inequality and environmental degradation has increased. It’s a powerful point to be made by protestors, but it’s inexcusable to excise the figures on poverty and standards of living while making it.

Given the world’s awesome economic interdependence, Australian protestors are also right to take note of international trends—economic shocks are felt the world ‘round. As China emerges as a great rival power to the US, and is close to becoming the largest economy in the world—the first time a non-democratic country has held this position in two centuries—hard discussions about global values must be had, but we can do without the misguided moral sanctimony of Occupy Melbourne.

But, please: don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling for the eviction of the Occupy Friday’ers. Just someone hand them some history and economics textbooks, please.

2 Responses to Occupy Melbourne

  1. John Kerr says:

    I’m afraid for your health, Martin. I think you might have picked up something, perhaps on a visit to Sussex Street NSW, which has left you with narrowness of vision about how regular folks can be won over. You reckon syphilis might have got the Melbourne Occupiers. Loss of peripheral vision is an early symptom of syphilis, so you get yourself checked, OK?

    Last time I read an article saying the Occupy message was unclear was in Forbes mag. What, the writer railed, do Occupy Wall Streeters stand for? I suspect he wanted a manifesto, bullet-point style preferred, so he could attack the contentions one-by-one. Many of us are left wondering why Standard & Poor and Moodys are still trading, rating and ranting, when they have been so wrong so often. Forbes is silent on this. So are you.

    Classic European conservatism stood for horror at the excesses of the French Revolution and subsequent wars. For 200 years they sought to slow change in speed, extent and damage. No manifestos. Then the ideologues of economic rationalism elbowed them aside, and the GFC was the result. I suggest the Occupy Movement stands for horror at where 30 years of economic rationalism has left us. Why you needed the assistance of a New Yorker writer to support the contention that economic development has led to inequalities and environmental damage is a mystery. Does anyone doubt it? In Asia and Latin America, millions have indeed been lifted from poverty. But in the US and parts of Europe millions have been thrown down into it too. Don’t you think capitalism can do better than this?

    I too was disappointed to see the special bugbear groups have taken up station on Occupy Friday. But don’t you see that inclusiveness means something? Occupy London has attracted homeless people down from Birmingham for the tucker. The Occupy Movement is against homelessness, so they can’t chuck them out.

    I have spent the last seven years writing about crime in Australia. A veteran Vietnam war reporter, Pat Burgess, told me ‘You [reporters] always miss the big story.’ An Australian, he had assumed the ethnic and class background of the military reflected the nation’s demographics, but when he visited the US for the first time in 1976 he saw how urban and white the place was. I have just read Misha Glenny’s McMafia: crime without frontiers. Eyeopener – globalisation is the big crime story of our time.

    So stop being snooty, kill off that residual ALP pretension to realpolitick, and take a closer look at the problem and the Occupiers.

  2. Howard says:

    In the comment above one finds yet another example of that fatal preoccupation with the replacement of one set of ideas with an equally inflexible, impersonal set of new ideas which champion their own validity. Such a situation was cited by that teutonic maestro, Kant, as the first stumbling block to genuine thinking. He laid down his reason, but I, lesser creature, am sufficiently moved by gut- reaction toward the unattractive condescension of John kerr’s response.
       Perhaps I betray a core delusion in the optimistic presumption that the purpose of commentary is to encourage conversation and open-hearted debate – a miraculous feat if you pause think about its achievements. Conversation – in contrast to the impressive tyranny of rhetoric exhibited above – belongs to the mysterious commerce capable of offering one’s smoky, inexplicable, inner reality -that is, to relinquish sovereignty of our own thoughts – in order to establish a common world. The death of conversation is signalled when the the community invade the individual, gutting it’s contents and tossing it’s useless carcass overboard. Conversation, dialogue, is a relation defined not by what one can build from the ruins around him – but by what he is willing to give.
       Politics sanctions equality with an inherently limited scope. Enlightenment, spelled out by Kant, issues equal access between citizens to the freedom of speech. Yet to cheer a society of equals as the final accomplishment regrettably overlooks it’s final destination. It is only that I have a right to respond with sanctimony and condescension that, in the humility of frank discussion, I sacrifice that freedom to learn something of the people around me.

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